Hwæt a minute mister postman
July 23, 2015 9:49 AM   Subscribe

 
So?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:53 AM on July 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


What ho!
posted by sio42 at 9:54 AM on July 23, 2015


What!
posted by resurrexit at 9:54 AM on July 23, 2015


Tell you Hwæt...
posted by Windopaene at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2015 [14 favorites]


It is a great story if you like dragons, sea monsters, royalty or people getting their arms ripped off.

Well, who on earth could that PLEASE I AM LISTENING CONTINUE WITH YOUR MAGNIFICENT TALE
posted by maxsparber at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2015 [15 favorites]




Gadzooks! Here be dragons...
posted by infini at 9:57 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Coming in in 2215: the second word.
posted by Paul Slade at 9:58 AM on July 23, 2015 [8 favorites]


It seems sort of silly to say "well, THEY didn't use exclamation marks, so..."

I mean the ancient Romans didn't use punctuation at all, but I don't see anyone suggesting we shouldn't use it when translating Latin.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:03 AM on July 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


LOL!

eh....

This is how we laugh.
posted by I-baLL at 10:06 AM on July 23, 2015


It seems sort of silly to say "well, THEY didn't use exclamation marks, so..."

Walkden isn't making such a simplistic argument. He's saying that based on his analysis, the first word isn't an exclamatory command standing on its own, but a part of the larger first sentence. It's not that Old English didn't use exclamation marks so we shouldn't translate them, it's that he doesn't think this word has the function of an exclamatory sentence in the way it's traditionally been translated.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:11 AM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


So he's saying Tolkien was wrong? BIG WORDS BUDDY.
posted by Atreides at 10:25 AM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


Hwæt you talking about Willis?
posted by eriko at 10:29 AM on July 23, 2015 [8 favorites]


Since then it has variously been translated as “What ho!” “Hear me!” “Attend!” “Indeed!” and more recently “So!” by Seamus Heaney in 2000.

"What ho, Hrothgar," I said as I popped the old brightly-forged boar-shape down on the bench. "Why so harrowed?"

"Oh, Brightraven," he signed. "You know I've been just desperately in love with Ecgtheow for weeks now. But what with the devouring of one's hoard, folk clamoring for rings, and the general decay of time and all that, I'm in absolutely no position to pop the question."

"Quite so," I said, having no little acquaintance with dragonish aunts of my own.

"So I've had to rusticate here at Heorot Hall just to tide me over until the next allowance comes in. Doesn't agree with me at all; in fact I've been trying to sell the place for years. And I found exactly the right folk too--complete cave-dwellers, you know, but obviously an enormous hoard somewhere. The thing is, the lady's son is an absolute terror. Runs around like he owns the place, blood-besliming the benches and devouring the staff. I've lost three retainers this week alone. I say, Brightraven--can't you lend me that champion of yours, just to get me out of this fix?"
posted by Hypatia at 10:31 AM on July 23, 2015 [139 favorites]


He's saying that based on his analysis, the first word isn't an exclamatory command standing on its own, but a part of the larger first sentence. It's not that Old English didn't use exclamation marks so we shouldn't translate them, it's that he doesn't think this word has the function of an exclamatory sentence.

So? Exclamation marks were used mid-sentence for centuries until Strunk & White (or whoever) said it was dirty.

In any case, incorporating the Hwæt! into the next sentence changes nothing at all meaning-wise, and, frankly, doing so at all -- let alone recommending it -- is pretty dang questionable. In his paper, Walkden writes: "Non-interrogative clauses preceded by hwæt are wh-exclamatives parallel in interpretation to Modern English ‘How you’ve changed!’" That seems to be what it all hinges on. Constructions such as How you've changed!, however, are old-timey as fuck. No one born after WW2 talks like that. You'd be more likely to say something like, Whoa! You've changed!, which, hey, what do you know, exactly the same construction as the original.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:40 AM on July 23, 2015 [5 favorites]


(Which is to say, the best translations of Beowulf would begin, "Holy mackerel!")
posted by Sys Rq at 10:42 AM on July 23, 2015 [8 favorites]


There's a lovely comedy in this kind of exaggeration to the point of falsification, the journey all the way from a subtle modification in interpretive emphasis expressed carefully in a scholarly publication to a press release (apparently by Walkden himself?) "everything you thought you knew about Beowulf was wrong" glib headline. You have to suspect that the true audience for this attention-seeking exaggeration is not us but the REF.
posted by RogerB at 10:43 AM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


Oh, Hypatia, I was coming in to make the Wodehouse gag, but that comment is a thing of beauty I could never have rivaled. Why hasn't someone done a complete Bertie Wulfster?
posted by yoink at 11:00 AM on July 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


So? Exclamation marks were used mid-sentence for centuries until Strunk & White (or whoever) said it was dirty.

Sys Rq, his argument has absolutely nothing to do with exclamation marks. Not a single, teeny, tiny thing. You are fundamentally misunderstanding his point.
posted by yoink at 11:02 AM on July 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


To be fair, I'm not sure the article does a great job of explaining the distinction.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:04 AM on July 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


TURN DOWN FOR WHÆT
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:04 AM on July 23, 2015 [23 favorites]


You are fundamentally misunderstanding his point.

Whose? Sangermaine's?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:07 AM on July 23, 2015


Say hwæt?
posted by tilde at 11:11 AM on July 23, 2015


You know hwæt?

Chicken bæt.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:13 AM on July 23, 2015 [34 favorites]


To be fair, I'm not sure the article does a great job of explaining the distinction.

It's a question of the syntactic function of the word. Is it operating as a standalone exclamation (like "Zounds!" or "Gosh!" or "Dude!") or is it modifying the larger sentence of which it is a part. You might think about the different way we can use a word like "really" to think of an analogy. It can be used as a stand-alone interjection (think posh British English, someone does something a bit outrageous and the response is "Really!")--or it can be used to modify an entire sentence: "Really, he's been sitting out there for hours." In that usage, it means "what I'm about to say is true, even though it seems implausible."

Now, imagine that we have a text with no punctuation in which we find the sentence "really he's been sitting out there for hours." We would need to appeal to context to figure out which way the "really" is working. Imagine that the preceding sentence is someone suggesting that it won't do any harm to make so-and-so wait for a bit longer. We might then argue that the best way to read the sentence is to make the "really" a stand-alone exclamation, followed by a separate, independent sentence: "Really! He's been sitting out there for hours" (the meaning being first "What a ridiculous/offensive thing to say" and second "here's why that's ridiculous/offensive"). But say it follows a discussion in which someone claims, in the face of skepticism, to have been followed by a suspicious man all day and points to him sitting in a car outside the house. Then it would be best rendered "Really, he's been sitting out there for hours." The word is functioning differently in each case. How we choose to use punctuation to accentuate or clarify that function in written English is neither here nor there in regard to the actual structural difference between the sentences.
posted by yoink at 11:16 AM on July 23, 2015 [14 favorites]


Ho no!
posted by srboisvert at 11:24 AM on July 23, 2015


So, I'll be the wet blanket to all the jokesters up-thread: hwæt rhymes with "cat," not "cut."
posted by aught at 11:33 AM on July 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


*this is the sitting on the sofa laughing my head off pose*
posted by infini at 11:34 AM on July 23, 2015


So, I'll be the wet blanket to all the jokesters up-thread: hwæt rhymes with "cat," not "cut."
posted by aught


You hwæt...
posted by infini at 11:35 AM on July 23, 2015


So, I'll be the wet blanket to all the jokesters up-thread: hwæt rhymes with "cat," not "cut."

hwæt
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:38 AM on July 23, 2015 [7 favorites]


Now, imagine that we have a text with no punctuation in which we find the sentence "really he's been sitting out there for hours." We would need to appeal to context to figure out which way the "really" is working. Imagine that the preceding sentence is someone suggesting that it won't do any harm to make so-and-so wait for a bit longer. We might then argue that the best way to read the sentence is to make the "really" a stand-alone exclamation, followed by a separate, independent sentence: "Really! He's been sitting out there for hours" (the meaning being first "What a ridiculous/offensive thing to say" and second "here's why that's ridiculous/offensive"). But say it follows a discussion in which someone claims, in the face of skepticism, to have been followed by a suspicious man all day and points to him sitting in a car outside the house. Then it would be best rendered "Really, he's been sitting out there for hours." The word is functioning differently in each case. How we choose to use punctuation to accentuate or clarify that function in written English is neither here nor there in regard to the actual structural difference between the sentences.

In what way does Hwæt function even remotely like that, though?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:42 AM on July 23, 2015


Constructions such as How you've changed!, however, are old-timey as fuck.

Isn't that the point?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:43 AM on July 23, 2015


I think it also needs to be said that Heaney explicitly follows Tolkien's theory of Beowulf, which treats the accumulated details of oral language and history as less important than the moral themes of community, heroism, responsibility, and justice. The diction of Haney's translation defers to 20th century English rather than historical accuracy (he says so right in the introduction).

His understated, "So." is the manner in which a 20th century conversationalist might signal the transition to a new topic. "So, how about the Red Sox this season?" "So, I was walking down the street and saw a Norway rat scamper across an intersection and try to get into a hotel." Maybe a comma is better than a period there. But it's poetry, not prose and punctuation doesn't necessarily map to sentence structure.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:45 AM on July 23, 2015


Isn't that the point?

Why WOULD that be the point? Why translate something from 1200 years ago into English from 100 or 200 years ago, rather than into modern English?
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:47 AM on July 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


In other words, Walkden is probably right about "Listen!", and "What Ho!" But wrong about Heaney.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:55 AM on July 23, 2015


I'm surprised this hasn't been on the blue before; Walkden's paper (pdf) came out in 2013 (as did the linked Independent story) and was discussed a fair amount then; there's a nice post by Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org, and Walkden made a great little teaser for his book (see Mark Liberman’s Language Log post from last year).

Sys Rq: You might want to stop digging.
posted by languagehat at 11:59 AM on July 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


Walkden made a great little teaser for his book

Holy shit, hearken to that thing, it's fantastic.
posted by RogerB at 12:09 PM on July 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


from article: “According to an academic at the University of Manchester, however, the accepted definition of the opening line of the epic poem – including the most recent translation by the late Seamus Heaney - has been subtly wide of the mark.”

I'm pretty sure that "subtly wide of the mark" is a contradiction in terms. If the difference is "subtle," then by definition I think it's certainly not "wide of the mark," since (as far as I can tell) "wide of the mark" really doesn't mean "close but not quite."

It sounds like they really want it to be wider of the mark than it actually is.
posted by koeselitz at 12:18 PM on July 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Why translate something from 1200 years ago into English from 100 or 200 years ago, rather than into modern English?

‘How you’ve changed!’ isn't a challenging construction to modern ears, and if it's closer to the mark then go with that. We still do Shakespeare despite his being even older than "old-timey as fuck."

I'm pretty sure that "subtly wide of the mark" is a contradiction in terms.

It's possible to be wide of the mark in a way that isn't obvious. That's how I read it, anyway.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:27 PM on July 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


Say...I cry your pardon?
posted by Samizdata at 1:02 PM on July 23, 2015


Shakespeare is Early Modern English roughly speaking. (Insert complaint about Sleepy Hollow abusing Middle English here.)

I'm fortunate to have a copy of the Heaney translation in my desk, and he openly admits to taking multiple poetic liberties to put Beowulf into the language and style of his 20th century paternal relatives. The Heaney, to be blunt, is not that kind of translation where "wide of the mark" of historical linguistics is relevant.

But I probably get excessively annoyed when works are criticized in terms they explicitly reject as fundamental principles.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:09 PM on July 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hmm, so old Thorkelin was pretty much right back when he made the first translation. He translated hwæt as quomodo. Thorkelin's been rather roundly maligned through the centuries, though I've heard that lately his reputation has been recovering somewhat.
posted by Kattullus at 2:05 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


this is hwæt i've been saying all along
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:22 PM on July 23, 2015


Hwæt the fuck?
posted by Monkeymoo at 2:55 PM on July 23, 2015


The "h" makes me read "hwaet" as the pronunciation of "what" given by Lil Jon.
posted by bleep at 3:14 PM on July 23, 2015


Beowulf would translate pretty well to a mmm hwæt you say video.
posted by nom de poop at 3:40 PM on July 23, 2015


I'm hwæt-blooded. Check it and see.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:57 PM on July 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sys Rq: You might want to stop digging.

Dude, what the fuck?

I asked a question. Are you going to answer it, or just insult me for no reason?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:35 PM on July 23, 2015


In what way does Hwæt function even remotely like that, though?

Sys Rq, it's an argument about syntax. People thougt the "Hwæt" at the start of Beowulf was a single-word sentence, an exclamation. Walkden argues (I think convincingly) that this is incorrect, and it's part of a larger syntactic structure, equivalent to the "How" in "How you've grown!"

Your argument that it could still be translated as if it were a structure like "Hey! You've grown" is true, in that a translator might think that structure closer to the original in spirit (to a contemporary audience) than "How you've grown!". But that's completely irrelevant. The argument isn't about what the most evocative rendering into contemporary English of the opening of Beowulf is. Its about what that opening's syntactic structure is. Walken argues that scholarship up until this point, upon which Heaney relied, misunderstood that structure.
posted by No-sword at 4:55 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


But what difference does that make if the meaning is the same?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:58 PM on July 23, 2015


Well, arguably the meaning isn't the same. I mean, people get so exercised about the fantasy-whæt, they imagine a scenario where the scop shouts it out, "Hey!", and the din settles and people turn to look (probably still holding giant half-eaten drumsticks and wearing horned hats), etc. etc. ... and it turns out that isn't true. Heaney I believe has written about why he uses "So", and it was roughly along those lines. He was trying to mimic what he thought was the structure of the original. He was mistaken about that structure (not through any fault of his own, of course). To many people, that makes a difference. (And obviously to those narrowly interested in how Old English worked rather than "what Beowulf says" it makes all the difference in the world.)

To the extent that you could decompose either to "Poem.start; Spear_Danes.glory.praise", I guess it doesn't make a difference. But surely you can see how the fact that the structure of the lines is completely different to what we all thought up until now is a big deal, especially given that the difference is in a part that most translations of the poem have specifically singled out as being noteworthy for the glimpse it gives (they mistakenly thought it gives) into the literary culture of the time.
posted by No-sword at 5:40 PM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


For his next trick, Dr. Walkden will posit that Homer is not, in fact, invoking the muses in his openings, but instead simply saying "Okay, so, like..."
posted by Spatch at 9:07 PM on July 23, 2015


Well, arguably the meaning isn't the same. I mean, people get so exercised about the fantasy-whæt, they imagine a scenario where the scop shouts it out, "Hey!", and the din settles and people turn to look (probably still holding giant half-eaten drumsticks and wearing horned hats), etc. etc. ... and it turns out that isn't true. Heaney I believe has written about why he uses "So", and it was roughly along those lines. He was trying to mimic what he thought was the structure of the original. He was mistaken about that structure (not through any fault of his own, of course). To many people, that makes a difference. (And obviously to those narrowly interested in how Old English worked rather than "what Beowulf says" it makes all the difference in the world.)

I just read that section of the introduction at work, (helpfully quoted in an earlier link) and that's not at all what Heaney is going for:
…when the men of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf… They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk. And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives. I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon.
There's more to Heaney's description not quoted on that page. At least for me, Heaney's voice (and his description of it) reminds me of my truck driver grandfather, who also wasn't one for small talk (partly because it was physically difficult for him by the time I knew him). In terms of structure and emphasis I see Heaney's "So." as being somewhere in between the traditional and Walkden. It's not as forceful as "Listen!" (The Annunciation's "Hail," comes to mind.) But probably not as light as Walkden's "How..." Heaney's voice assumes it already has a certain degree of deference and authority.

The opening line is just one example of a systematic modernization of the verse. He admits to taking liberties and making compromises between meaning, poetics, plain 20th-century speech, and form. The opening line isn't the only reason why a student shouldn't use the Heaney as an Old English text.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:28 PM on July 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


CBrachyrhynchos, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree -- I think Heaney's description of "So" as a rendering of "the first word of the poem" (and list of previous renderings) makes it pretty clear that he understood and was trying to translate "Hwæt" as a one-word exclamatory storyteller's opening. This is the core issue I think, and it's qualitative rather than quantitative.

Put another way, if we slid to Earth-Prime, where everything is the same except that Beowulf's initial "hwæt" was lost from the manuscript, I don't think we would find a "So." at the beginning of Heaney-Prime's translation.
posted by No-sword at 11:50 PM on July 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm not disagreeing that an ideally historical Beowulf would skip the one-word opening. But one-word openings serve to establish speaker/audience relationships, and I don't see the conversational "So." as the exact same thing as "Listen!," much less "Listen!" spoken over the presumed din of a drinking party.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:02 AM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


> I asked a question. Are you going to answer it, or just insult me for no reason?

I'm sorry if you felt insulted, but you don't seem to be willing to devote even a tiny bit of time and effort to bothering to read and understand either the article or what people here are trying to tell you, you just keep stubbornly saying "it's all the same," and I think that's pretty insulting in itself. You know nothing about the subject, which is fine, we all know nothing about most subjects, but you approach this as though you in your ignorance were somehow able to trump the analysis of a scholar who's been immersed in this for years. And you were ranting about exclamation marks as though they had anything to do with it, and then doubled down when corrected. So that's the reason. My suggestion: Read what No-sword is saying and try actually assimilating it.
posted by languagehat at 8:16 AM on July 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: we all know nothing about most subjects.
posted by maxsparber at 8:26 AM on July 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


There's quite a bit of discussion of the use of hwæt along these lines in this previous post, which also links to a free/donation download of a translation by Tom Meyer, which begins

HEY now hear

what spears of Danes
in days of years gone
by did, what deeds made
their power their glory —
their kings & princes:

....

For those looking for a more liberal translation, this might fit the bill, e.g.,

BANG! like a flash that hard hearted, grim, greedy,
sick thing snatched 30 sleeping Danes &
jiggetyjig ran home ag
ain, fists full of blood candy.

It also contains a description of the translation method and form used by Meyer, "In short order, via Owens, I acquired a PDF copy of the text. Immediately it was clear that this was a translation in every sense of the word — taking liberties and risks with the Old English verse in astonishing ways. From a purely visual standpoint — as readers will quickly discover perusing the pages that follow — I had never seen anything quite like it."
posted by Rumple at 9:51 AM on July 24, 2015


And you were ranting about exclamation marks as though they had anything to do with it, and then doubled down when corrected. So that's the reason.

I wasn't "ranting"a bout exclamation marks. I was responding to a specific comment about them. Then I went on, referencing the actual paper, which I have actually read, and understood, and disagreed with.

But you're right. I can't be bothered to read. I'm being insulting, when you've done absolutely nothing in this thread but call me an idiot.

you approach this as though you in your ignorance were somehow able to trump the analysis of a scholar who's been immersed in this for years

Mmm-hmm. You know we're talking about a guy writing off centuries of scholarship, right?
posted by Sys Rq at 10:28 AM on July 24, 2015


which I have actually read, and understood

You have not yet put forward a counter argument which demonstrates that understanding. You keep insisting that two quite different syntactic formations are the same, when they demonstrably are not. The author may or may not be wrong in arguing how we are to parse this particular sentence, but he is clearly and unarguably right to argue that it makes an important difference. The fact that you can't see that suggests that you have not, in fact, "understood" the argument.
posted by yoink at 11:26 AM on July 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Now hear this...
posted by infini at 2:03 PM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oyez! Oyez!
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:26 PM on July 24, 2015


Oh, okay -- point taken, Heaney is a good and tasteful enough poet to steer clear of pseudo-historical hornhat wagnerkitsch. But syntactically, he got taken. (No shame in that, of course, pretty much everyone did.)
posted by No-sword at 9:04 PM on July 24, 2015


Would we accept "so" without any punctuation? "So we've heard of the might of ancient kings, right?"
posted by bleep at 10:45 PM on July 24, 2015


« Older “You’re making this shit up!”   |   "chromed-out robo-sexual stew" Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments